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U.S. Lawmakers Back Belarus Opposition As Russia Closes In

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Biden must stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin when they meet for a summit next week. That is the message from U.S. senators just back from Eastern Europe. Republican Rob Portman of Ohio and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire are two of the lawmakers who visited Lithuania, Ukraine and Georgia, a trip intended, as Senator Portman put it, to try to ensure these countries know they have a friend. Both Portman and Shaheen sit on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which hosted a hearing today on Belarus. So we've got a whole lot to talk through as they join us now.

Senators, welcome to you both.

ROB PORTMAN: Thank you for having us.

JEANNE SHAHEEN: Great to be with you.

KELLY: Let's start with today's hearing, where among the witnesses testifying remotely was Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled opposition leader of Belarus. Here's a little bit of what she said today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SVIATLANA TSIKHANOUSKAYA: The entire situation in Belarus deserves a comprehensive and unwavering response. Otherwise, we all will face such situations in the future as Lukashenko is turning my country into the North Korea of Europe - nontransparent, unpredictable and dangerous.

KELLY: The North Korea of Europe - Senator Shaheen, I'm going to let you kick us off. You met with Tsikhanouskaya on the ground last week in exile. How hopeful is she she will be able to return to Belarus, that any opposition will be tolerated?

SHAHEEN: Well, I think she's very clear-eyed about who Lukashenko is and about the support that he's getting from Vladimir Putin and Russia and the fact that his regime is not only jailing opposition leaders. It's also, as we've seen, torturing some of them - several. As she said today, one of - a young man, only 18, committed suicide because he was being so harassed by the Lukashenko administration. So she recognizes that it's a challenge. But as you heard in her statement just now, she is very articulate. She is very courageous. She has taken over from her husband, who has been in jail for over a year now in Belarus and has had to move to Lithuania with her children. And she continues to travel around Europe to raise support in the international community in the EU for Belarus and the challenges that the people are facing there. So...

KELLY: Is - yeah.

SHAHEEN: What we tried to do is to reassure her about our bipartisan support for her efforts and for the opposition in Belarus.

KELLY: Senator Portman, what was your takeaway from the meetings that you held with opposition leaders and what the U.S. can do - what kinds of leverage the U.S. actually has in this part of the world?

PORTMAN: Well, part of the leverage we have is, as I said, simply to let people know in this part of the world - these young democracies who have turned to the West, who, you know, want to get away from the dependency on Russia and instead want to turn toward freedom and democracy and free markets, rule of law, transparency - that we're with them. And I think that's an important message in and of itself. Second, I do think that the sanctions that have been put in place have worked fairly well - probably not as well as they could have if, in fact, you know, we were able to put sanctions in place in some of the state-owned enterprises that would affect the Lukashenko regime more directly. So with regard to Belarus, we got advice while we were there about the possibility of additional sanctions and how they should, you know, be structured around these key sectors of the economy. And we heard that again today. But the bottom line is...

KELLY: And just to be clear, you all were not in Belarus, correct?

PORTMAN: No, we were in Lithuania because...

KELLY: Yeah. Yeah.

PORTMAN: We couldn't go into Belarus.

KELLY: Right.

PORTMAN: We had a military aircraft. But we did have a good meeting in person with Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya. And she is so impressive. I mean, this is a woman who was not involved at all in politics. Her husband was jailed during the presidential election because they were concerned about him and intimidated by him and the possibility of his winning. So she decided to run and, along with two other women, have really, you know, formed this opposition group. And it's - she's a brave and courageous woman who has no, you know, personal ambition in terms of politics but does care a lot about her country. She's a great patriot, and that was so clear in talking to her.

KELLY: I don't want to move on without asking about Raman Pratasevich. This is the opposition activist and journalist whose plane made international headlines when it was forced down on its way to Lithuania. He was arrested, detained. Did you all get any updates, any sign that his release might be in the cards?

SHAHEEN: No, not at all.

KELLY: No.

SHAHEEN: And, in fact, I think that's another reason why it's important for us to examine whether there are further sanctions that we can put on Belarus. And as Senator Portman said, one of the things we heard from Tsikhanouskaya today was the importance of looking at sectoral sanctions against their oil industry, against potash - which is used in fertilizer - to hit some of the things that will really make a difference to Lukashenko.

KELLY: And I know that's something in the works. The Biden administration says...

SHAHEEN: That's correct.

KELLY: They're working out additional sanctions on Lukashenko. To turn you to your call for President Biden to hold a really tough line when he sits down with Putin next week, let me ask you each, can you be specific? What does that look like? Is it enough to say, hey, buddy, knock it off with all the hacking and the troop build-up on the Ukraine border? Senator Portman.

PORTMAN: Well, we were in three countries, as you say. One was Lithuania, where we focused on the Belarus situation. But second, we did go to Ukraine and then third to Georgia. In all three countries, what is happening is there's additional pressure being applied by Russia. Some of it is military. Some of it is disinformation. Some of it is cyberattacks. And the president, when he meets with Vladimir Putin, needs to be sure and raise all these issues and, you know, show the strength...

KELLY: But beyond raising them, what do you want him to do to be - to hold a firm line?

PORTMAN: Yeah. I mean, I think there's three things that actually would get the attention of President Putin. One is to be sure that our allies are also holding a firm line. So as tough as the president needs to be - and I hope he will be - it's also important that he say, I'm not in this alone. And in fact, every freedom-loving country ought to be having the same reaction to this. It's unbelievable. Here we are in the 21st century, and you have a country that has violated sovereign borders, you know, taken over parts of countries in the case of Ukraine and Georgia and continues to militarize those areas and violate human rights. So everybody needs to stand up. And that includes, by the way, our EU friends who are, you know...

KELLY: So the allies.

PORTMAN: ...Looking for more natural gas. And second...

KELLY: Forgive me for jumping in. I know you've got a couple more.

PORTMAN: Yep.

KELLY: But I want to make sure in our...

PORTMAN: Yep.

KELLY: ...Short time that Senator Shaheen gets a look in.

PORTMAN: Absolutely.

KELLY: What specifically do you want Biden to do?

SHAHEEN: Well, again, I think what Senator Portman says about our allies is critical. The president will be coming from the G-7. He'll be coming from the NATO summit. And hopefully, in both of those arenas, he will have a chance to rally our allies because what is going to make a difference to Putin isn't just what the United States does. It's what the international community does. And when we speak with one voice, as the EU and the United States did in response to the Ryanair downing of that jet, it has an impact. And we need to continue to do that and to let Putin know that he's going to be held accountable and that there are red lines. We want to make sure that he understands what our red lines are.

KELLY: It's interesting that you two seem to be on the same page of this, given that there's not much bipartisan anything to be found in Washington....

PORTMAN: Oh, absolutely.

KELLY: ...These days.

PORTMAN: No. It was good to be there together.

KELLY: But I hear you speaking with one voice on Russia and Eastern Europe.

PORTMAN: Yep.

KELLY: Thank you so much to both of you for your time. We appreciate it.

PORTMAN: Thank you, Mary Louise.

SHAHEEN: Thank you.

PORTMAN: Take care.

KELLY: That is Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, and Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.